Day 92: Waimate, NZ to Otaio Gorge Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 26, 2014

Day 92: Waimate, NZ to Otaio Gorge Campground

I sleep for thirteen hours. Kristen sleeps for three. Each path leads to nothing good. My eyes burn, my head aches, and I feel weak. Kristen is tired, has a sharp pain in her side, and deals with burning issues of her own that I'm not comfortable asking for more detail about. We spend hours laying around the room, going back and forth between complaining, trying to decide what to do, sighing heavily, and apologizing for the strange bodily noises that we make all the time now. We're in that weird middle ground where we're not so sick that there's no hope of riding, but sick enough that every time the idea of cranking over thirty to fifty miles of rolling hills and wind enters the conversation an invisible weight appears and pushes us back down toward the mattress.

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We finally leave the cabin and ride through town looking for food around 10:30. My head feels soft and blurred and disconnected, like I've taken way too much cold medication, even though all I've done is sit around, drink water, and bitch and moan all morning. It's distracting, although not distracting enough to keep me from noticing the terrible hairstyles, bad tattoos, neck beards, below average state of oral hygiene, and delightful people that seem to be business of usual in Waimate, where the clock tower in front of the municipal building has been set to chime at forty-three minutes past each hour.

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In the library we decide on a compromise. Instead of stopping altogether or keeping up with our normal pace, we plan on riding a series of shorter days so that we can try to get ourselves feeling better. This will also let us take advantage of the brief period of warmer weather that has made its way to where we'll be riding next.

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It seems like a reasonable idea. But then we walk outside. The sun shines and it's seventy degrees, but the wind tears down the main street of Waimate at twenty-five to thirty miles per hour. It blows from the exact direction we need to go, which by this point in our New Zealand odyssey seems like no surprise at all. As I roll up the top of my panniers and snap them shut, Kristen looks over at me.

"So what do you want to do now?" she asks.

I pause for a moment, look down at the ground, and then out at the trees hunched over sideways and the garbage blowing down the street in waves.

"Right now, I want to go home."

I don't mean it in the practical sense. But the sickness and fatigue of the past few days and the seemingly endless amount of adversity we've experienced since we reached the South Island continue to grind away at our morale. We never expected cycling to be here easy and worry-free, all tailwinds and cookies and glacier views, but for so much of the last five weeks the majority of the miles have felt like an unequal fight. Beautiful landscapes and relentless positivity can only take us so far. For the first time I feel like telling New Zealand to fuck off and heading away to deal with whatever hot, dry, isolated, poisonous things Australia might have in store.

The most entertaining section of any library.
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Around 2:00 we finally trade bitching for cycling. We head away from town on a quiet back road that bends left and right constantly as it follows the lowest possible route between the lumps and bumps of the countryside. We're happy to be far from any highway, and back among small farms made up mostly of grazing land, where the action of the wind on the grass makes the fields of green and yellow look more liquid than solid. When we reach the tops of the tallest of the rolling hills and look to the right we see the yawning mass of the Pacific Ocean reflecting dark blue to the horizon. If we squint hard enough in that direction we can almost make out the Porsches and BMWs speeding down the Southern California coast at thirty over the speed limit.

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The wind is always with us. And it's the kind of wind that blows with such power that as it moves around the trees and homes and power poles it makes this whooshing and swirling sound that feels haunted. It's also the kind that makes it impossible to go faster than six miles per hour on the flats, that fills our ears with the sound of thunder, and that makes our knees ache for all of the effort it takes to keep from being blown back to the goatees and pant suits of Waimate. And from what we've heard from almost a dozen people in the last day, wind of this force and from this direction is rare around here.

"Ah yeah, this northwesterly," says one of the roadies who passes us not far from town. "This neeeeeeeever happens. I can't remember the last time we had something like this. Usually it's like cycling in paradise out here."

"I can just see the headline," Kristen tells me later. "Two cyclists swept away in first tornado recorded in the history of New Zealand."

Everything's on the table this spring.

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We've traveled a lot of gravel roads during our time in New Zealand, but today we manage to find what might be the worst. A thick layer of new rocks was laid down on it within the last week, which means that even though cars and trucks and buses pass us every few minutes, and even though we ride in the tracks they leave behind, our tires want nothing more than to create channels in the gravel and sink down into them as deep as possible. Adding to the fun, the gusts of wind that now blow at better than forty extend their fingers and grab the dirt that sits loose between the bits of gravel as they speed past. This sends the dirt airborne, where it washes over us in waves of grit that work their way into our lungs and across the surface of our eyes. And to make it all worse, I've had the Prince song "1999" stuck inside my head since we left the grocery store. No amount of begging, pleading, or trying to insert another song — any other song — in its place has an effect.

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When we turn and ride with the wind at our side, the strongest gusts literally shove us from the left side of the road to the right. It doesn't matter how much we fight, they still leave us scrambling to stay upright or force us to skid to a stop with legs extended to brace against a fall that always seems to be a fraction of a second away. At least a dozen times we try to get started after stopping, but before we can get forward momentum on our side a gust bears down on us with anger and we have to snap our feet away from the pedals and back toward the ground to keep from dumping it in the rocks.

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The corners are the worst, because that's where the fresh layer of gravel has been pushed up into deep banks. Unless we properly judge the curve of the turn, the slope of the turn, and the path that the tire tracks take, those banks will grab the front tire, yank it to the left or the right, take away what little grip we still have, and pull us toward the ground. We get it right all but once. When I take the turn at the bottom of a steep hill with too much speed, I overshoot the track and find myself flying face first toward the dirt. Only the split second reaction of my hands shooting out to brace for the fall keeps me from doing a header into the rocks. My dream of finishing the trip without crashing dies at the apex of a nameless corner on Back Line Road on New Zealand's South Island.

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We ride up hills where the surface is so loose that it takes four stops and starts to get from the bottom to the top. Five miles per hour becomes the best-case scenario, and the unpredictable nature of the gravel means we have to pay attention every second of the way. It doesn't matter that we ride with focus and purpose, it still takes almost six hours to travel the last eighteen miles of the day. It's not quite the short and easy day we had in mind when we set out from town in the afternoon.

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But we leave our pissing and moaning on the road — that no good motherfucking piece of sheep shit road. By the time we've set up the tent, cooked dinner, and barricaded ourselves away from the gnats that hang in the air in clouds so thick that they look like some giant independent organism, we sit cross-legged on the sleeping bag feeling relaxed and happy. We say stupid things in ridiculous voices that make us laugh out loud, and then proceed to break wind in front of each other more than any couple reasonably should. Movies and books and reality television could only hope to be so entertaining. We're tired, still fighting off sickness, and wary of what the road ahead may bring. But those are concerns for tomorrow, and in the descending chill of twilight tomorrow seems so far away.

Today's ride: 24 miles (39 km)
Total: 3,099 miles (4,987 km)

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